Skip to main content

How to Separate People from Problems; A Case Study

The Situation

Slamming her hand on the table, the SME glared at my project sponsor and the rest of the VPs and SVPs from across the table. “See!” she said seething with anger. “That is why I will NEVER be a VP here. Because you all refuse to do what’s right!” This meeting was supposed to produce a final sign-off to begin development. After months of vetting a prototype, at least a dozen walkthroughs and pages and pages of requirements documentation, it had come to this. Individually, Mary (the SME), loved the project and expressed her appreciation for the work my team was doing. Individually, I was Sajith’s, (the project sponsor) saving grace, the woman who was leading the charge to make us compliant with industry regulations and streamline efficiencies in a big way. However, bringing them together in a room to approve the project emphasized everything that was wrong in the relationship between them. She was about ethics and he was about expediency.

I’ll start with the end of this story first, because it’s a happy ending. That is, the application was built, and is still meeting its vision, with hundreds of satisfied users. And the SME in the story did eventually make VP.

Project Failure and Conflict Resolution

Before I backtrack on my steps, I should point out that IT project failure rates fluctuate between 60-70% each year; meaning, failure is common. While the pool of project management professionals grows, and as more companies adopt IT governance, it’s hoped that the failure trend will reverse. In addition to process and governance, I think that IT professionals should be trained in the softer skills like communication, team building and conflict resolution to shore up the embankments of process. In fact, it was my training in conflict resolution that saved the project in this story.

Roger Fisher and William Ury are leaders in the conflict resolution community and their groundbreaking book Getting to Yes; Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In is standard reading in almost every conflict resolution 101 class. You may have heard of the phrase ‘Separating the People from the Problem’ (SPP) at some point in your career. That catch phrase is sourced from their Getting to Yes method.

Fisher and Ury’s Method

At the highest level there are four steps to negotiating through conflict.

  1. Separate the People from the Problem
  2. Focus on Interests, not Positions
  3. Invent Options for Mutual Gain
  4. Insist on Using Objective Criteria

I won’t say that I follow this process to the letter, but I routinely use elements in my project communications. Below I describe the key parts of the process that have helped me diffuse IT conflicts between stakeholders, both in this conflict and over the years.

Flash back to shocked VPs at conference table. From my read of Fisher and Ury I knew the following:

Step 1: Don’t De-Legitimize the Emotion

My first step was not to de-legitimize the emotions between the parties. As the leader in the situation, I knew not to discredit Mary or Sajith’s opinions. I see this happen a lot in response to an emotional outburst in a work environment. The emotional person is immediately discredited by being labeled ‘unprofessional’ for showing emotion. In response, they get even more angry and the situation escalates. Fisher and Ury suggest “Making emotions explicit and acknowledging them as legitimate.” So in my situation, I didn’t react to the emotion and I didn’t try to tell either party ‘how’ they should be reacting. Before they could really get out of control, I just said something like, “I understand that this is an issue of high concern to both of you. Let me see if I can rephrase what you are saying.”

Step 2: Find the Face-by-Face Interest, Find the Facts in the Opposing Interests

Next, I sought to find the common interests between the two. What I knew was, while both stakeholders differed on certain aspects of application functionality, fundamentally they agreed that the application had to get built. So my goal was to pull them back to this common ground. That Fisher and Ury use; the analogy of a lifeboat with two sailors fighting over rations. Instead of focusing on the dwindling rations, the sailors could focus on the common interest; getting rescued. This is what they call a ‘Face-by-Face’ interest. I knew that the ‘Face-by-Face’ interest was an external auditor breathing down the company’s neck. “Look, “I said, “we all want to be able to meet the needs of the auditors.” This braught nods around the table. I then rephrased the seemingly opposing concerns of each stakeholder, pulling out the facts.

“Mary, I hear that you are concerned about strict adherence to policy and want the application to enforce that policy.”

“Sajith, I hear that you are concerned about meeting the external deadline.”

Restating the facts is important because:

  • Restating what you’ve heard shows that you are actively listening to the speaker. In situations where interests are competing, it’s extremely important to demonstrate that each person is being heard.
  • Restating enables you to get clarity and refine your understanding of the issues.
  • Restating enables you pull out the facts. Once the parties have confirmed the facts, then you can start to review solutions as a group.

Step 3: Engage Both Parties in the Solution

Following step 1 and step 2 will enable you to do something really incredible. You will focus the situation away from the people and onto the problem. In step 1 you acknowledge the emotion – this is recognizing the people element of the situation. In step 2, you focus on each person’s interests and strive to find a mutual interest that can tie them together. This is recognizing the problem element of the situation. Acknowledgment goes a long way to diffusing emotion, which pulls you out of the realm of a people problem, and puts you into the realm of solution discovery.

In step 3, you want to try to encourage brainstorming a solution as a group, collaboratively. What can happen is that the two parties begin to work together to solve a problem. This new way of interacting shifts the dynamic in a subtle way.

Working on solutions after emotions and interests have been acknowledged, accomplishes two goals:

  • Solutions emerge that are based on fact, not emotion.
  • The stage is set to prevent further conflict by creating a dynamic of cooperation that did not exist before.

In this case, Mary and Sajith, with the assistance of a SPP aware project manager (me), were both encouraged to draw their potential solution on the wipe board. I set the brainstorming ground rules, which generally means that participants are not allowed to opine on a solution until all participants have a chance to discuss their ideas, and all solutions in the group are fully described. This gives participants the space they need to present their ideas without fear of attack. In this setting, Mary and Sajith came to agreement, on their own. The developers would build the functionality Mary wanted into a development version of the application. An agreement was made to go live with a first iteration as soon as Mary had a comfort level with the solution in the development environment and a firm date for when that solution would be released.


Separating People from the Problem is a valuable skill. By following these steps, you’ll become better and better at de-escalating and defusing difficult situations, finding solutions collaboratively and setting the stage for new interactions that help prevent project conflict.

Michiko Diby is Principal with SeaLight, LLC a consulting firm she founded to provide project conflict resolution services. She is a collaborative, goal-oriented professional with excellent track record of leading projects in both the public and private sector. She has a proven ability to re-engineer operational gaps and streamline processes through hands-on communication and mentorship and facilitating the design of leading edge solutions. She has an exceptional background in project conflict resolution, project initiation and planning, relationship building, and proactive issue resolution. She is a leader in the Washington, DC Project Management community, serving as PM for the 2007-2009 International Project Management Day, and 2008 AVP for Community Outreach. She holds a Project Management Professional credential (PMP) and a MS in Conflict Resolution. URL: Blog: Contact: [email protected]

Reference: Getting to Yes; Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In 1981 Roger Fisher and William Ury. Note – Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals in the case study

Comments (6)